Satchmo's best kept secret
"I am Louis Armstrong's daughter. His only child. I have waited my entire lifetime to say that publicly." Thus the now 60 year old Sharon Preston-Folta begins her own personal account about a daughter-father relationship, which leaves her emotions damaged. She declares at the beginning of the book why she has waited until now. Her father was one of the most respected musicians who traveled the world as an ambassador of jazz. It was assumed that he had left no children. Now his only daughter tells her story in a small but touching book of 112 pages. In eight chapters named after Satchmo's jazz standards, as well as an epilogue in the form of a letter to her late father, she describes the pain of always knowing whose blood flows in her without being able to speak about it.
Her mother, Lucille, (the same name as Armstrong's fourth wife), was born in 1921, was a dancer in Harlem, and for many years, was the mistress of Armstrong. She believed initially that Satchmo would divorce the other Lucille to live with her. In 1955 her daughter, Sharon Louise, (named after Louis) was born, at the time Armstrong was touring in Australia. The birth added to Lucille's hope for a common family life, however that hope was never fulfilled. In several letters Armstrong comments on his future with Lucille and even signs letters with "Your future husband". Armstrong, however, later never made this relationship public. What role Armstrong's wife Lucille played here is not clear.
Sharon's mother loved Armstrong so much that she insisted on keeping their relationship private, because she knew that was what Louis wanted. She carried this to the point that the day Louis died.
Preston-Folta describes how this secret weighed on her as she got older. Every day she heard the music of Armstrong and, apart from a few of his visits, she missed the physical presence of a father. Armstrong did not seem to care for her, although for years he did provide financially for both Lucille and Sharon and then later for Sharon's education. When Satchmo died, his one and only child and her mother were denied attending his funeral. "My father rejected my love while he was living, and again when he died." It was not until many years later she had the courage to make her story public and express the pain that this situation caused her. A good friend, Eydie Palmier, (the daughter of the world-famous Latin Pianist Eddie Palmieri,) gave her strength in her quest to find peace. Sharon felt her descendants should have the right to know what bloodline they have. In 1989, when she met her future husband, drummer Howard Folta, she told him this story and it struck him like a blow.
She continues to speak about her own life as a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She feels she speaks for the many children who have never met her biological father. In the end, she calls upon her father to grant her the right to declare the truth about her origins and to be recognized as his daughter.
The book, which was written with the help of best-selling author, leaves mixed feelings about the best kept secret of Louis Armstrong, who brought joy and happiness to so many people with his music. While he was pivotal in bringing recognition to jazz worldwide, Satchmo failed to extend the tenderness he showed on stage to the life of his own daughter.
This is an excerpt of an interview with Sharon Folta-Preston with Detlef A. Ott in July 2015:
DO: In one letter Satchmo
signed to your mother “Your future husband”. Do you have an idea what the
reason could be that a divorce from Lucille, which was mentioned before, never
SPF: My mother always said that Lucille (his wife) would not give my father a divorce. Not only do I believe she said that, I also believe that his manager Joe Glaser discouraged him from doing so as well. My father would never go against Mr. Glaser's advice/wishes. In one letter he called him HIS "Jesus“!
DO: Have you ever tried to get contact to your father as a teenager without the knowledge of your mother, e.g. to write a letter to him?
SPF: No, I didn't try to reach him without my mother's help or permission. My mother was very protective of my father and I was afraid of what her reaction would be if she found out. My mother always viewed the relationship as she and I and never encouraged my father or me to develop a relationship like most mothers do.
When I was 14 my father was very sick and died when I was 16. During the time he was sick, I kept asking about him but my mother would say he's very sick and would end the conversation. She did not encourage a connection between my father and me without her.
DO: Was it the respect for your mother that it took so long to tell your story publicly?
SPF: Part of the reason was respect but it was a series of events that
delayed me becoming public. I never had the support of my family to tell
my story. My mother demanded that her business was not to be made public
and no one, including me, challenged her.
My father died when I was 16 and I became pregnant at the same time AND I was a Junior in high school. For the first couple of years after his death, I was just trying to graduate from high school, learn how to be a mother and deal with a mother that was depressed.
We received savings bonds from Associated Booking Corp until 1973. After the support ended, I worked to help support us. By the time I got to my early twenties, I was so disgusted at how my mother handled everything, I was determined that I would be my own person without family. Of course as I got older, I realized that you are your DNA. I also acknowledge that I needed to make peace with the good, bad and no so pretty reality of my life.
DO: What is your contact to the legacy of Armstrong (especially the Louis Armstrong House and Museum what you mentioned in the book) now? How was their reaction about your book?
SPF: Michael Cogswell/Dir of the Louis Armstrong Museum reached out to me shortly after the book was published and asked if mom and I would be willing to be interviewed for the Louis Armstrong Museum archives. We were willing but we could not move forward because the contract they sent gave them the rights to my story and they would own the interview. Of course, this was not something we would agree to I asked that I be addressed as my father called me, his daughter and that I own my answers and have use of the interview for my website, etc. At this time, I have not heard back from them.
At the same time I was introduced to Ricky Riccardi/Archivist, Louis Armstrong House, in this process and both he and Michael invited me to the Museum for a private tour which I did in August. It was a very moving experience for me.
DO: Your letter to your father in the end of the book is filled a little with bitterness although you mention your love to him. What are your feelings for your father today with distance to what happened between you?
SPF I think it was only natural that I have some
bitterness but like most relationships, I have a range of feelings.
I love my father and I'm disappointed at how he didn't fight to have a stronger relationship with me. I believe that he and my mother were in love but their love was "inconvenient" to his life, fame and world status. I also believe that he felt that he was a good father and did the best he could.
One of the best things that has happened as a result of me making myself known is that people have shared with me what my father has meant to them. I've gotten to see his greatness and how he's touched people through his music, his performance or meeting him. It confirmed that I did the right thing by becoming public. I would not have had those opportunities if people weren't able to meet me and share their stories. It's helped me be more understanding of just how complicated our lives can be and that we do the best we can with what we have and what we know at the time.
DO: Why have you published the book “only” as book-on-demand? Do you have plans for a further version?
SPF: I had to self-publish my book because I didn't get a book deal. I'd love to publish another version with updates, photos and more details about the love story of Pops & Sweets! My Literary agent presented the book to several publishers in NYC. If you know any publishing house that may have an interest in publishing my book, we'd be happy to talk to them.
DO: What is your relation to Jazz today?
SPF: Even as a teen and loving Motown, the Beatles and all of the pop music of the day, I always listened to my father's music and vocalist like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington.
I became a fan of jazz fusion while in college in the early '70's and a big fan of Weather Report, Al Jarreau and Return to Forever. When I met my husband Howard Folta, a jazz drummer, teacher and a huge fan, my appreciation for jazz grew to include more traditional jazz especially the cool jazz of the 60's. Today, I enjoy a mixture of it all from Latin Jazz to the more funky styles of Incognito!
Preston-Folta, Sharon with Millner, Denene
Living in the shadow of my Father Louis Daniel Armstrong
As Book-on-demand via AMAZON
Detlef A. Ott
(Article edited by Dennis and Ginna Crumley)
Detlef A. Ott is a Teacher, Jazzmusician, Recordcollector and Contributor for different Magazines like a.o. JAZZ PODIUM, JAZZTHETIK (Germany), DOCTOR JAZZ MAGAZINE (The Netherlands), VJAZZ Magazine (Australian Jazz Museum & Archive Melbourne) He has his own Jazz-Magazine JUST FOR SWING GAZETTE, published quarterly:. www.jazzfan24.de/JFS/
He lives in Leipzig, Germany.